E-learning Growth in the UK: The ups and downs of progress

Growth in e-learning in the UK

In the last five years we have seen e-learning moving at a fast pace with new trends emerging every few years, however the journey to get to where we are today hasn’t always been a smooth ride.


With the arrival of the worldwide web in 1989 it wasn’t long, in fact the early 1990s, that learning materials started appearing online, although the term e-learning didn’t really come into existence until the late 90s. There was much talk that we were on the cusp of a learning revolution, however in reality it wasn’t so much a revolution as just an opportunity for the same teaching content to be accessed in a different way. The significant change in pedagogical skills and emergence of innovative delivery and content didn’t materialise. CD ROMS were the new big thing, rather than online learning and this didn’t really change over the next ten years, except within the corporate sector.

CD ROMS were the new big thingIn 1994 computers were being introduced into UK schools and by 1998 there were 820,000 in use in state schools, however only a small number were using the internet, with most using CD ROMS. By 1998 over 9,000 schools were connected to the internet but online learning development was slow, most likely impacted by the fact that a third of schools reported that 70% of their staff were not confident and competent with ICT and there was no training on the pedagogical aspect of online learning. In contrast every school in the USA had microcomputers and a large proportion were using the internet in the early 90s.

By the end of the 20th century increasing numbers of large organisations were putting learning materials online. Vendors of enterprise applications started to recognise learning management systems as an enterprise application, and so began the slow rise of the LMS over the next ten years.

E-learning Trends in 1990

  • Learning materials on CD ROM
  • Learning content designed for MS Windows, Macintosh and Linux
  • Learning technology marketing focused on the corporate market
  • The use of the LMS in large corporations


Between 1998 and 2004 the UK government invested around £1.8billion in several government initiatives and projects aimed at harnessing the power of e-learning.

In 2000 UK e-Universities (UKeU) was set up as a joint initiative between the UK Government, 12 universities and private industry. The company had £62m of public funding and £5.6m from Sun Microsystems. It offered undergraduate, post-graduate and life-long learning courses in subjects such as English language, science and technology, and business. By 2004 it was declared that UKeU had failed.

In 2003 The Institute for Employment Studies, like many organisations around the same time, produced e-learning guides, theirs was ‘Exploring e-Learning’. It asked the question ‘Does your organisation want to extend its use of computer-based technology to provide training resources to your employees?’ It expressed the view that ‘A quarter of all learning is expected to take place electronically in five years’ time; a prediction that was not to materialise’.

It was around 2003 that the first rapid e-learning authoring tools camrapid e-learning authoringe onto the market. Unfortunately, this started a trend for low cost, low quality, poorly designed learning content both on the open market and presented as in-house company training. This harmed the reputation of e-learning, a reputation that some have clung on to and to this day it is the small amount of poor e-learning that still damages the reputation of e-learning. These authoring tools have moved on a lot and so have the skills of those using them, so we see very little poorly developed content today.

The 2004 CIPD e-learning survey found that 73% of respondents were using CD ROMs and online learning still didn’t feature in the survey as a type of learning they could select. However, 54% agreed that e-learning demands an entirely new skill set for people involved in training and development, a fact that many strategically planning the implementation of e-learning failed to realise. Twelve years on many still haven’t got to grips with this, especially in parts of the further education sector, leaving those tasked to deliver a strategy floundering.

The challenge of online trainingIt wasn’t just the UK government that could see the opportunities for e-learning, but the adoption of online learning for an organisation wasn’t, and still isn’t plain sailing without getting the right advice and appropriate planning. Sixteen years ago little thought was given to the learner’s requirements and experiences. Strategic planning to implement e-learning often lacked the necessary knowledge and understanding of those defining the strategy. In 2000 the publisher Pearson Education lost an estimated £80 million in rushing into an e-learning market that they knew nothing about, and they definitely weren’t the only ones to invest in e-learning and fail to make a success of it.

Despite the failure of UKeU, 2004 saw many universities begin their offer of online courses. At this time we didn’t have the culture of ‘free content means free marketing’ and it’s highly likely that if you’d suggested that they should make these new online courses free they would probably have laughed. How things have changed!

E-learning Trends in 2000

  • Rapid e-learning authoring tools result in the rise of amateur e-learning developers
  • Web 2.0 focuses on online services, bringing a wide range of free and paid for e-learning development tools and applications
  • Mashups – multiple online services combined to provide new added value services. Educational sites brought a whole host of learning technologies into one place.
  • The enlisting of end users, the learners, to feedback online about online training, content providers and learning outcomes


2009/2010 saw a change; the slow to mature e-learning e-learning growthindustry began a rapid expansion.There was a marked increase in the use of online learning in the UK, and although there were companies that were early adopters, often down to the technological prowess of an individual or senior management team, in 2010 we saw a significant growth in online learning being adopted. The UKs e-learning market was estimated to be worth around £472 million.

We began to see the emergence of research and case studies on the impact of e-learning, and more specifically online learning, being published:

  • In 2010 Kineo reported on a project they had been working on with M&S to raise the quality of service at M&S cafes. Within six months of launching an online course 8,000 members of staff had undertaken the training, in the first year M&S saved £500k over alternative training methods and improved customer service by 22%. Feedback received from M&S staff, who had not experienced online training before, was that it was a 95% positive experience.
  • In 2011 it was reported that the London Fire Brigade saved £700,000 implementing the use of online learning.

In 2011 around 50% of UK state schools still reported that around 50% of their staff needed training in using digital content. Similar and worse statistics were evident across the whole educational sector and staff training continues to be an issue today.

In 2013 Future Learn was launched, a UK led MOOCs, Massive Open Online Course, alliance with 26 universities. Almost ten years after UKeU failed would Future Learn survive? In fact it hasn’t just survived, but is thriving. Now 91 universities and institutions from around the world are offering hundreds of free online courses. Student numbers have risen to almost 4 million, with a British Council course, preparing for an English language test, attracting 370,000 students. The less positive aspect of MOOCs is the very poor achievement rates, which in 2013 stood at less than 7%. Now the general trend has been for enrolments on MOOCs to reduce and for achievement rates to increase, currently standing at around 12%.

The Towards Maturity survey, which surveys businesses about their use of technology in learning and development, reported in 2013 that although 77% of staff said they wanted to engage with online learning 64% were still using classroom courses. The report summarised that technology was forcing organisations to consider different ways of learning, but that the focus was on a drive for efficiency, rather than building the capability of workers.

In 2014 over 41% of Fortune 500 companies were using e-learning to instruct employees and the UK e-learning market was worth £565 million.

E-learning Trends in 2010

  • E-learning content created in Flash
  • E-learning used extensively to develop professional skills
  • Cost savings and increased efficiencies the driver for e-learning
  • The emergence of MOOCs
  • Collaborative learning


So where are we now? In this age of AGILE working, flexibility Agile flexible workplaceis key to all aspects of the workplace, including training, and online learning is playing a pivotal role in achieving flexibility with quality outcomes for learners.

We are seeing that mobile responsive content development is the norm. Less and less we see employees sitting at a PC doing a 2 hour course, as there’s an increasing trend to produce bite sized learning for training at the point of need. Over the next few years it’s likely that we will see today’s popular 30 minute course reducing further in time to 15 minutes and perhaps even shorter. Cloud based applications and online learning content have almost eradicated locally stored digital training materials.

Believe it or not we are still encountering challenges; access to online content with some areas of the UK still struggling with good internet connection, the lack of knowledge and understanding to create and implement a learning and development strategy that embraces innovation, and a reluctance to throw out or reduce the tried and tested face to face training, despite the overwhelming evidence of the business benefits of online learning.

There are also challenges with suppliers in the sector. The world self-paced eLearning market reached $46.9 billion in 2015 so it’s not surprising that year on year we’ve seen more and more e-learning businesses starting up. However, it isn’t all rosy in the UK’s e-learning sector with almost a third of the leading 100 e-learning companies failing to make a profit.

Despite the challenges the sector is still growing, although more slowly than in the last decade. More and more companies are implementing or increasing their use of online learning as either part of a blended or online strategy. Early insights into the 2016 Towards Maturity Survey finds that 63% of the learning and development leaders say they are using ‘off-the-shelf’ e-learning. More companies are combining their formal online training with social learning online and working towards employees taking more responsibility for their own learning.

E-Learning Trends in 2016

  • Flash content converted to HTML5
  • E-learning authoring development tools in the cloud
  • Tin Can development
  • Fully mobile responsive online learning and a culture of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)
  • Online social learning
  • Augmented reality
  • Bite sized learning
  • Gamified e-learning – with around 33.5 million online game players in the UK and a trend for utilising technologies for learning that people are immersed in, it’s not surprising that gamification in e-learning is set to increase.
  • Video for learning
  • Online remote exam invigilation
  • Digital badges
  • Wearable technology
  • Personalised e-learning

The eLearning Marketplace has an ever growing catalogue of online training, which currently stands at around 1,000 e-learning products from over 150 e-learning publishers. We offer free use of our learning management system to manage and track staff training and the flexibility to enrol staff on to courses as and when a training need arises. For a small one off cost have your own branded LMS, add your own content, have the facility to enrol staff on any of our LMS courses and even have the option to pay monthly for what you use.



CIPD 2004 e-learning survey
PR Newswire – Bersin by Deloitte: UK Learning and Development Organisations Spend Less on External Training Providers, Even as Budgets Rebound
BESA: ICT use in schools 1991-2015
University of Sunderland: The positive effects of using e-learning resources on the success rates and progression of learners in Functional Skills
The Plimsoll Analysis – E-Learning
Towards Maturity Survey 2013
BBC News
Trends in Educational Technology 1991. ERIC Digest
Katy Jordan, The Open University, UK – Massive Open Online Course Completion Rates Revisited
The Times Higher Education Supplement – Mooc completion rates ‘below 7%’
Ocbmedia – UKs e-learning market largest in europe
acm.org – Rapid e-learning polarizes opinion

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